Pakistan’s Gilani Faces Contempt Ruling That May Oust Him

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani
Yousuf Raza Gilani, Pakistan's prime minister. Photographer: Asad Zaidi/Bloomberg

Pakistan’s Supreme Court will tomorrow rule whether Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani is guilty of contempt for refusing to probe the country’s president for graft, a verdict that may further destabilize a key U.S. ally in the fight against regional militancy.

The court charged Gilani with contempt Feb. 13 for failing to act on its earlier order to seek the reopening of corruption investigations against President Asif Ali Zardari in Swiss courts. If found guilty, Gilani may be barred from holding the National Assembly seat that he needs to remain as premier and be sentenced to a jail term.

While the judgment is unlikely to trigger the collapse of Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party-led government, which has the parliamentary majority it would need to select a new premier if Gilani is removed, it may weaken the ruling alliance at a time when the U.S. is trying to mend a strained relationship with Pakistan that is central to the Obama administration’s bid to stabilize neighboring Afghanistan.

“Any conviction will plunge the country into a new crisis,” Hasan-Askari Rizvi, an independent political and military analyst based in Lahore, said in an interview yesterday. “It will increase political uncertainty and divert the government’s attention from the key issues.”

The coalition government has survived a series of crises during its four-year rule, including its sharpest confrontation with the nation’s generals over a memo seeking U.S. help to avert a military coup soon after the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Economy Struggling

Gilani’s administration is struggling to revive an economy hurt by political instability, militant attacks, and shortages of energy. The government in January cut its growth forecast for the year that ends in June to 4 percent from 4.2 percent, after registering one of the lowest expansions in this decade during the previous 12 months.

Pakistan is also seeking to redraw ties with the U.S. strained by a November border attack by American helicopters that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. In protest, Pakistan closed frontier crossings used to support U.S.-led troops in Afghanistan and suspended military and intelligence cooperation.

“According to the law, the maximum punishment is six months” in prison, Aitzaz Ahsan, Gilani’s lawyer, told reporters yesterday, confirming that his client had been ordered to attend tomorrow’s verdict. “The president has the right to issue a pardon, but in this case we will not seek one,” he said after the court had ended its hearings.

Immunity Claim

During three months of court hearings, Ahsan had argued that Gilani couldn’t be found guilty of contempt as Zardari enjoys constitutional immunity from prosecution locally and internationally while head of state. Zardari leads the ruling PPP of which Gilani is a key member.

Judges issued a contempt notice to Gilani on Jan. 16 after saying he violated his oath of office by failing to re-open graft probes against Zardari and others that former military ruler Pervez Musharraf suspended in 2007.

Negotiating with political parties to stay on as a civilian president, Musharraf decreed an amnesty to halt corruption cases against 8,000 politicians and officials, including Zardari and his wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

The Supreme Court in 2009 ordered the government to formally ask Swiss authorities to revive cases there against Zardari and Bhutto, who was assassinated at a political rally.

“The punishment in contempt cases is usually very soft,” Saeeduzzaman Siddiqui, a former judge at the Supreme Court, said in an interview yesterday. “The prime minister will still have the right to appeal, and if it’s accepted the court will suspend the verdict.”

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